Le Bernardin: Religion, Without the Gilt

by Jason Roth on July 1, 2009

If lust, extravagance, and pride are sins in your morality, then Le Bernardin is not your temple. But once inside, you will bow.

What Heaven looks like. (Lots of fish, no Jesus.)

My kind of cathedral.

I consider myself a disciple of chef Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin. If, by “disciple”, you mean: “the guy who can’t walk on water and who’s just there for the fish”, then that would be me. For our anniversary, Karen and I made a trip back. The restaurant is important to us because it was the last place we ate before I proposed. (Perhaps the restaurant reminds us of our independence?) My question this time, as on every previous visit, was: could this restaurant possibly be as good as before? No need to skip to the end. The answer would be: “My God, yes.”

We started the evening down the street at Gilt, which is also what you feel after you spend $18 on a drink. You might say “they sure as hell better be”, but yes, the drinks are good. My first criterion in judging any cocktail is the ratio of alcohol to other ingredients. The average barman adds too much or too little alcohol, with the expensive places presuming you think that more is better. Not so at Gilt. The Gilt barman, that is, barwoman, made a well-balanced drink. Mine was a variation on a margarita with mezcal and cucumber, and a few little pieces of candied lavender. Not the place you go to celebrate the end of the work week, but definitely works well before a dinner at Le Bernardin.

Pretending to be rich... at Gilt.

Pretending to be rich... at Gilt.

We finished our drinks and walked a few blocks west over to Le Bernardin. Upon entering, the staff immediately avoided Ripert’s cardinal sin #1, as stated in his book, On the Line:

“Not acknowledging guests with eye contact and a smile within 30 seconds. First impressions count!”

From the beginning to the end, the service was likely the best I’ve ever had. (I contrast the service with that of Per Se, which was perfect in a textbook sense, but felt a tad bit forced. Like someone would get fired if something didn’t go right.) I can count the “mistakes” on one hand. Once, and only once, my pace of wine consumption exceeded that of the nearest sommelier in reaching for the bottle to refill my glass. (But she did grab the bottle before I started to pour, and apologized for it.) And once or twice, my wife’s chair was not pulled out for her. Minor beyond belief in any other restaurant, but given the somewhat bulky chairs and a wholely different set of service standards, it’s actually worth mentioning here. But that’s it. You now have the complete list of “flaws” for our entire evening.

Upon being seated, and curiously before drink orders were taken, we were offered an amuse-bouche of a zucchini flowers stuffed with crab meat. This was a nice start, though given the potential we knew existed, we were admittedly a tad disappointed. The kind of full flavor that we were used to in previous dishes was not as pronounced in the bites of crab meat, and being an amuse-bouche, our expectations were higher. But let’s face it, I’m being picky as hell.

But waiter, I didn't order this.

But waiter, I didn't order this. Oh, it's free. Cool.

Things only got better, and better.

Le Bernardin has one of the coolest menus. The standard menu is prix fixed, broken down into three sections, plus dessert. (Not including the “upon request” section, with choices like “I’m the asshole who would rather be eating steak.”) You get to pick one item from each section: “Almost Raw”, “Barely Touched”, and “Lightly Cooked”.

When you pay this much for oysters, they sure as hell better be an aphrodisiac.

When you pay this much for oysters, they sure as hell better be aphrodisiacs.

Amongst our “almost raw” choices were the Kumamoto oysters and the salmon. (Somehow, I resisted the urge to get the pounded tuna with foie gras, which is a must-have for anyone who’s not been here.) The oysters were concise proof of the restaurant’s excellence: the freshness and texture of the fish itself was, of course, perfect, but more than that, the various gelées created new flavor combinations without ever overpowering the oyster. I.e., there was nobody in the kitchen who said: “Screw the oysters, I’m gonna show off.”

Ripert's salmon is even better than Cliffside Bagels'.

Ripert's salmon is even better than the stuff you get at Cliffside Bagels.

I decided to order the salmon precisely because one can get salmon sashimi and smoked salmon on nearly any block in New York, and wanted to see how good they could actually be. Oh, and also because of the excuse to try a jalapeno emulsion. The conclusion is that salmon like this, along with its complementary apple, celery, and baby watercress, wouldn’t last five seconds on its way to any bagel of mine.

Calamari two ways isn't enough, so they also stuff them.

Calamari two ways isn't enough, so they also stuff them.

Next up, in “Barely Touched”, was the calamari for me, which was filled with sweet prawns and shitake mushrooms, and served with a calamari consume. The latter, as you soon come to realize at Le Bernardin, is and can only be one of the many nectars of the gods you will consume here. You may even wonder if the mild broth should be bottled and sold on its own.

The scallops would have to be one of the stars of the show. (If the dishes served to us were the cast of, say, Cannonball Run II, you could say the oysters were the Sammy Davis Jr. of the evening. I would say my dessert was the Dean Martin.) My notes and memory are conspicuously missing what made the green sauce green, but I believe this, too, was jalapeno. Most importantly, the “ultra rare scorched” scallops were exactly of the texture a scallop ought to be. They were at the level of firmness when your mouth can’t decide if what you’re eating is raw or cooked.

Maybe the dish of the night.

The Sammy Davis Jr. of scallops.

Our “Lightly Cooked” choices were the baked wild striped bass with langoustine and confit tomato agnoloti for me, and the pan roasted monkfish with black garlic and tabbouleh, for my wife. I’m proud to say that my dish won the sauce war of the night. The monkfish only had something called a Persian lemon sauce, while mine had both a Bouillabaisse consommé and a curry emulsion.

Wild striped bass and langoustine, with sauce poured at the table. Both of them.

Wild striped bass and langoustine, with sauce poured at the table. Both of them.

The poor man's lobster? Not here.

The poor man's lobster? Not here.

For the guy who’s willing to drink these sauces bottled, I hit the jackpot with two. However, the “black garlic” with the monkfish gave it a unique edge, with its sweet, slightly sticky, mild garlic flavor that only comes (as I now know) from slow roasting it for a week. My bass was just fine, though. Even though I generally prefer fish that are cooked rare, the bass was brought to the exact temperature it needed to be. As years of disappointment have shown me, there’s nothing worse than overcooked fish.

We received a separate dessert menu, and I briefly sat and complained about how the photo on the cover was that of their signature Egg dessert, a dessert Eric Ripert had described as being a “pre-dessert” served to VIPs as part of the tasting menu. I decided to go for it, and ask the waiter if I could substitute that for one of the standard choices. Without a pause, the answer was “yes”. It’s not a large dessert, but highly recommended: as described in On the Line, “Milk chocolate pots de crème with caramel foam, maple syrup, and maldon sea salt”. All inside an egg shell. I’m not a huge dessert person, but for this one, I am.

What would Freud say about this?

What would Freud say about this?

It was good that the Egg was not large, since we also had carrot cake to devour, as well as the pleasant surprise of the passion fruit mousse and mango sorbet, a complimentary dessert to wish us a happy anniversary. (Make a note: it’s worth it to communicate special occasions to the reservationist.)

Free with our anniversary. (Which now may be celebrated quarterly.)

Free with our anniversary. (Which hereafter may be celebrated quarterly.)

Good carrot cake. And I know carrot cake. (I worked at Sbarro.)

Good carrot cake. And I know carrot cake. (I worked at Sbarro for a summer.)

Perhaps since I was feeling so gifted from being served the Egg… and, oh, yeah, did I mention two bottles of wine?… I decided to ask if we could “take a peek in the kitchen”. Again, without so much a blink, the answer was affirmative. The waiter immediately turned and walk to the kitchen (perhaps to give the staff sufficient warning to curb the four-letter-words) and came back with another front-of-staff employee, who showed us to the back. We were given a full-fledged tour of the kitchen, a bright, white space which is simultaneously huge and cramped, given the absurd number of people. There we’re easily 30 or 40 staff members, and yet I didn’t see a single person get whacked in the side of the head with a hot pan or frown about two strange people walking through their workspace. This tour, of course, couldn’t have been a better cap to the night. Better restaurants will often oblige your request to see the kitchen, so it never hurts to ask.

Petits fours: one plate per person. That's the way you do it.

Petits fours: one plate per person. That's the way you do it.

Obviously, a skeptic could assume the special occasion we were celebrating helped give a rose-colored tint to the evening. And sure, it did. But given that we ordered from the standard prix fixe menu, drank modestly priced wine ($120/bottle or so), and couldn’t pass for Woody Allen and his entourage (whom we saw last time we were here), I would say I’m being as objective as I possibly can when I say: Le Bernardin is as good as it gets.

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Jason Roth October 1, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Let me respond to a friend’s verbal comment to me that my declaration of a $120 bottle of wine being “modestly priced” was rather (in so many words) laughably ridiculous. I thought it was obvious, but by “modest” I meant as far as 4-star restaurants in New York City go. When a wine list includes bottles more expensive than some motorized vehicles, $120 is a near-bargain.

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